The Short Cuts chapter “On or About Your Person” offers a survey of personal text-bearing accoutrements that taken together could be said to serve as a person’s measure. There are of course shorter metrics than the inventory of a person’s wardrobe or wallet that can be used to size a person up—for example, “Money is the measure of mankind” or, more recently, David Crane’s suggestion (in his article “’Smart Power’ and the Rule of Law” []) that “[t]he true measure of mankind should be in the strength of a hand shake.” As a unit of measurement, the strength of a hand shake follows in a long tradition of using human anatomy as a means of reckoning. (The tradition of using “mankind” to refer to humankind, and “man” or “Man” as the generic personification of the human race, is another story for another day.)

The Sophist Protagoras is credited with saying that “Man is the measure of all things [pántōn chrēmátōn métron estìn ánthrōpos]—of existing things that they exist, and of nonexisting things that they do not exist [tôn mèn óntōn hōs éstin, tôn dè ouk óntōn hōs ouk éstin].” In other words, it is humans that determine what’s real and what isn’t, ánthrōpos being the gender-neutral term for ‘(a) person,’ contrasting with anēr ‘(a) man’ and gynē, ‘(a) woman.’ Here, it’s the human brain that’s the measuring stick and what’s being measured is phenomenological reality. To measure the concrete in the here and now, we have typically turned to more readily accessible parts of the body.

For the Romans, a mile was originally a thousand paces (Latin mīlia passūs ‘), a passus being  a stride, or, double-step equal to five Roman pedēs ‘feet.’ (The Roman mile was slightly shorter than the present-day English mile—about 5000 feet to our modern 5280, which may say something about how nutrition has improved over the intervening two millennia.) Among the ancient Greek job classifications was one that we might nowadays call a “measured-mile man”—their term was bêmatistēs, a bêma (plural: bêmata) being a pace (cf. the verb baineîn, ‘to walk,’ whence acrobat—originally a high-wire artist [ákros = high]). The job of the bêmatistēs was to walk with a pace of such consistency that it could be used to measure long distances. A modern version of this method was used during the British colonial period to survey the Indian subcontinent preparatory to building its railway system, and proved to be surprisingly accurate, the groundwork having been laid, according to tradition, by Vishnu who, in three wide strides (tredhorugāyah), measured out the earthly and atmospheric regions and established the upper meeting-place [i.e., heaven].

The people of Israel in the Bible measured lots of things in cubits, cubitus being the Latin for elbow and by extension for the distance from elbow to the tip of one’s middle finger; the specs for Noah’s ark  (Gen. 6:15) were 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits deep. The fathom (Old English fæðm, ‘outstretched arms’)  is nowadays used mostly by seafarers to measure the depth of water, while on land, horses are measured in hands (4 inches); an ordinary horse will measure some 15 hands high at the shoulder, or five feet, and after the races we may repair to a tavern to celebrate our win (or as the case may be to console our loss by a nose), where the barkeep will pour us three fingers of bourbon or other distilled spirits in a shot glass— that is, about an ounce. Ounce does not come from our bodily nomenclature—it is instead from Latin uncia, ‘twelfth part,’ also the source for inch—although the twelfth part of the old pre-metric French foot [pied] was called a pouce, which is also the word for thumb (as was its linear ancestor, Latin pollex). In recent years, the world of computers and their user-friendly graphic interfaces has been enriched by the .tmb file, short for “thumb(nail),” from the artist’s thumbnail sketch, which was about how big such a drawing was supposed to be.

Although we do not measure absolute height by heads, we do make use of them in a relative scale, colloquially saying that X is a head taller than Y. Then there are arm’s-length relationships, the metaphor for a distance calculated to satisfy concerns over conflict of interest. And figures of speech by which we express short intervals of time are often calibrated to our bodies as well (in a heartbeat, in the twinkling of an eye), as is the  hair’s-breadth escape from danger.

Ad hoc measurements have employed the human body as well, as when the Massachusetts Avenue bridge across the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge was marked off by brothers from MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, whose chapter house was on the Boston side, using a freshman pledge named Oliver Smoot in October of 1958, and declared to be a distance of “364.4 smoots +/- one ear.” The markings would be repainted twice a year by LCA members over the course of the next half-century, an enigmatic landmark that acquired over time the cachet of a local legend. A titanium-alloy plaque was placed on the Cambridge side in 2008 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original event, Smoot himself having graduated in 1962 and, appropriately enough, gone on to a career in standards and measurement, eventually chairing the board of directors of the American Standards Institute.